Kansas senators push transgender athlete debate to new extremes in override of governor’s veto

By: - April 26, 2022 2:30 pm
Sen. Molly Baumgardner said during a debate over transgender athletes that members of the University of Kansas men's basketball team could return to the Statehouse in a couple of years as members of a women's team. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Molly Baumgardner said during a debate over transgender athletes that members of the University of Kansas men’s basketball team could return to the Statehouse in a couple of years as members of a women’s team. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas senators pushed debate over a proposed ban on transgender athletes to new extremes Tuesday involving the University of Kansas championship-winning men’s basketball team and child genital inspections.

The Senate — which has repeatedly debated the issue over the past two sessions — then voted 28-10 to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of Senate Bill 160.

Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, joined Democrats in supporting the governor’s veto.

Republicans say they are promoting fairness in competition, even though the model legislation is rooted in anti-LGBTQ initiatives. Democrats say support for the bill is actually motivated by politics and hate.

The legislation requires participation in school activities, beginning at kindergarten, to align with a student’s “biological sex.” Opponents of the bill question how gender disputes will be resolved.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, referred to the legislation as the “Kansas Public School Children’s Genitalia Inspection Act.”

“The Kansas Legislature is better than this,” Holland said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, asked senators to think about the members of the KU men’s basketball team whose national championship was celebrated at the Statehouse on Monday.

“I want you to close your eyes for just a moment, and I want you to think about what if a couple of years from now we’re recognizing the women’s national basketball team, but in fact, several of those players are the same gentlemen that we saw yesterday,” Baumgardner said. “Because that is exactly what’s happening in our universities. We have students, male students, that are competing freshman, sophomore and junior year, and then their senior year, they’re competing on the women’s team. They are breaking all the records, leaving the women in the dust. That is what this piece of legislation is about.”

Baumgardner offered no example of universities or athletes to support her claim.

At the high school level, there is just one transgender girl participating in any school activity in Kansas, according to LGBTQ advocates.

It isn’t clear whether there is enough support in the House to complete the override of the governor’s veto, which requires the votes of two-thirds of both chambers.

The Senate debate included several references to a hate-filled email sent by Rep. Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane, to a transgender graduate student at KU.

In the email, first reported by Kansas Reflector, Helmer said she didn’t appreciate sharing a bathroom with a “huge transgender female” at the Statehouse, an apparent reference to Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat. Helmer also said she entered the men’s restroom to make a point, falsely claimed many school-age girls have been sexually assaulted in bathrooms by transgender people, and complained that transgender athletes were cheating.

“Instead of writing about me in Topeka, I thought The Reflector News would be informing Topeka about all the plane loads of Mexico Illegal Immigrants that have arrived in the last few days,” Helmer wrote in a post on her personal Facebook page. “They are staying at a downtown hotel at taxpayer expense ($800) per room, plus all free meals and free laundry. And they have those nice big I-phones!”

In the Senate debate, Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, said it was unacceptable that girls participating in sports could have boys in their locker rooms and showers.

“I’m amazed that we’re not hearing from more of those who are, if you will, feminists, standing up for young ladies,” Peck said. “We heard during the veto message that Senate Bill 160 is about scoring political points. If doing the right thing is, quote, trying to score political points, closed quote, count me in. I will do the right thing, and I will take the political points that come along with doing the right thing.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, characterized the issue as a battle between love and fear.

History is full of examples of what happens when fear drives decisions, Sykes said.

“I will act with love toward children who are labeled and dismissed, and their humanity is disregarded,” Sykes said. “I will act with love toward my colleague across this building whose dignity was ignored yesterday. I will act with love and charity to the one Kansan that this bill will prevent from participating in sports.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.